Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Lambing updates

We had another delivery this morning -

Ewe 2836 gave birth to a ram lamb and a ewe lamb. It was my first "assist" as the ram lamb's head was blocking the way out. I helped because I could see he was cyanotic, his little blue tongue poking out the side of his mouth and his front feet tucked under his chin. His sister popped out behind a few minutes later, no complications.


The newly named Matilda (Thank you, Hazel!) is doing much better. Eudora eventually rejected her (the smell of the fly strike chemical masked Matilda's smell and Eudora didn't recognise her) but she is adapting to life as an orphan lamb. It's just one more hardship for her to endure. I spent yesterday teaching Matilda to take a bottle. I'm not sure there was much instruction on my part, just perseverance and begging. She's starting to get the hang of it and at 12 midnight last night, for the first time in her life, she finally had a full belly of milk.

I had to wait til she peed so she'd stand still for a photo. Excuse thumbs.
Double phew.

Even Ewe 0004 with pneumonia is on the mend. I know this because she was hard to catch this morning, especially as I forgot my sheep bait - a bucket with a few handfuls of barley in it, to lure them in and distract them while I jab, prod, or shear.

And that squab? I let him out of his coop four days later, rested from whatever illness or trauma befell him.

Like the spell of warm weather that's arrived, I'm going to enjoy the respite while it lasts. At dinner recently, I asked my friend Annette how long she's been keeping sheep. "Twenty-seven years", she said. I asked her if she ever had a really bad year. "Oh God yes! Many. But I remember we had one year when everything went to plan, no complications." So, according to her experience, the odds of having a carefree lambing season are in the region of 26 to 1. Against.

I know already this isn't going to be my year, but that just means I have that one to look forward to, someday.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

6.57 AM

I've only been up for an hour and so far I've been peed on (sheep), spattered the floor with milk replacement, stood in a wet cow pat wearing only croc sandals (the holes only filter out the big chunks) and a patch of stinging nettles, but...little lamb is now back with her mother and sister!

The lamb recovered slowly overnight, through nothing I've done I assure you. That lamb is determined to live. I really wanted her to get a chance to see that, once you make it past the cold weather and blow fly attacks, life can be a pleasant experience grazing pasture and sitting in the sun.

She's in no way out of the woods. She's small and everything bad will try and take advantage of her weakened state. I'll stay vigilant and keep you posted. There's indian summer weather headed for us this week, which will benefit her and the other newborn lambs - if they ever hurry up and come out.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

6.01 am

It's not quite daylight yet, though I can hear the roosters in the village doing their round robin - uh, chicken - crows. I'm relieved to report that both lambs are well.

Eudora laid up in the middle of the field with the babies pressed tight into her. She was there when I checked at 11pm and seemingly every hour after that. All the other ewes were scattered about, as if on sentry duty. In fact during one check I saw two older ewes stood up and watching the perimeter. Maybe sheep have their own security system in-built by nature. Just in case, I slept with the window open so I could hear any problems, and the gun was near me so I could deal with a problem swiftly. Everyone needs backup.

Everyone also needs sleep, though I was happy to give up mine to ensure the day-old lambs got theirs. I'm going to have a cup of tea and knit while the sun comes up, and wait to see what other deliveries the stork might have in store today.

I will leave you with one more video, some cute to go with your morning tea or coffee - lamb taking her first steps yesterday.

Eudora's first lambs

Eudora gave birth to two ewe lambs late this morning -

I would like to say it went smoothly but this is Eudora. She mothered the first lamb easily, but the second, slightly smaller, lamb couldn't keep up with Mother and big sister. I spotted the first signs of hypothermia which quickly went downhill.

I rushed to the vets for a drenching tube and more colostrum, and of course instructions for how to tube a tiny lamb only a few hours old. There's only one hole for the feeding tube to go into but the road splits, so to speak. If I got it wrong, I would be pumping her lungs full of thick, sticky colostrum. By a miraculous fluke I managed to give the lamb a tummyful.

I rigged up a lamb warming box by putting a hot water bottle on the bottom of my recycling bin, covering that with straw, inserting lamb, topping with more straw, and placing her in front of the wood burner. I stoked the wood burner, and stripped down to my t-shirt while the lamb got up to room temperature. She recovered quickly.

A neighbor said if I removed her for treatment the mother wouldn't take her back. I ignored his sage advice, preferring to give it a try rather than face the prospect of another orphan lamb to bottle feed. Eudora happily took the now warm and full lamb back into the fold.

I've been obsessively watching them, looking for signs of relapse or rejection. I was so worried about constantly disturbing them that I sat at the bottom of my drive with a pair of binoculars to observe from a distance. This was fine, until a school bus full of children drove by. Now I'm the crazy sheep lady with binoculars.

I'm still concerned the little lamb isn't getting enough food so I'll mix her up a bottle of sheep formula before bed as a supplement feed. I can see her suckling but she looks smaller than her sister. This could be normal but I'm not used to looking at lambs and I can't recognise what normal is yet. The extra feed is insurance.

I tried to pen Eudora and lambs in for the night behind an electric wire to deter foxes, but Eudora was having none of it. This is not ideal. Mike and I will be getting up a lot in the night, and my rifle is by my bed. I hope that both Eudora and I still have two lambs by morning.

Sunday, 18 September 2011


The oak trees have had bumper crops of acorns this year, which means one thing: dopey woodpigeons.

Green acorns contain high levels of pyrogallol. Don't ask me what that is, I'm not a chemist. What I do know is that the pyrogallol is poisonous to pigeons (as well as horses, and probably a variety of other birds and mammals.) Young pigeons seem most susceptible, possibly because they're small and still developing. They have less body mass relative to an adult. And young pigeons are still learning the 'food' vs. 'not food' life lesson. Too many acorns is definitely 'not food' for pigeons.

I found this young squab in the middle of the road, staggering about, and too disoriented to escape my slow, lumbering approach.

He still has baby fluff, and you can see all the feather casings he's shedding onto my plaid shirt. He's not yet grown into his beak so he's quite young. I've put him in a spare broody coop overnight to protect him from hungry foxes and village cats. He may live, he may not (my record for rehabilitating baby birds has been 0 for 3 this year). If he doesn't, we'll do a post-mortem and see if, in fact, he has a cropful of acorn shells.

I hope he's simply recovered enough to fly away, and smart enough to head for the barley fields instead of the woods for his breakfast.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

What you sow

Do you remember the story of the Little Red Hen? Apparently it's a Russian morality tale, but I'm only acquainted with the illustrated Golden Book version from my childhood. You know the story: hen finds a grain of wheat and asks the other animals in the farmyard if they would like to help her plant and tend the wheat, harvest the grains and bake them into bread. The other animals, all being workshy, decline until it comes to eating the bread. The hen tells them they didn't help so no bread for them.

Even as a child I found the hen a bit sanctimonious. As an adult with my own seeds to tend, I find out that I'm both hen and lazy farm animals. Now that it's harvest time, I'm reaping the rewards where I put in the work, and suffering deficiencies where I put in hours in front of the TV.

We've started harvesting our game. Our first partridge shoot was last Thursday and we put 219 birds in the game dealer's larder. None of the dogs are fit enough to work a whole day in Indian summer temperatures. Dulcie, who was sidelined last year with a ligament repair, is back on good form. Determined to prove her worth, she overheated and had to be revived with a sugary treat but I'm glad to report no other injuries.

More roe deer need to find their way into my freezer - or 'Ice Camp' as Kate calls it, a term we've taken to our hearts. Feeding the horses on dark one night, I saw two bucks in the orchard. They were in range and standing side on, in front of a perfect backstop. Had I brought the rifle we wouldn't be having this conversation, and the shoot staff wouldn't be having carrot and coriander soup for lunch Monday instead of venison casserole.

I am harvesting a bumper crop of carrots. And beans. I've pickled both. They make nearly healthy accompaniments on nights when I'm too lazy to cook extra vegetable side dishes. In England, 'Meat and Two Veg' is the national meal. Sometimes in our house it's just meat, leftover fried potato, and pickled vegetables.

I was overjoyed with my onions, and I spent yesterday engrossed in my favorite harvest activity: plaiting the storage onions. Space is limited so they're going to be stored in the same place they dried: the spare bedroom. It isn't really a bedroom. as there's no bed in it, and in spring I use the room for incubating and hatching chickens. Onions are hygienic by comparison. But heavy. I hung the plaits on the curtain pole, eyeing up the ever-increasing bend, wondering if the pole would hold up.

It didn't. The pole pulled out of the wall sometime around 2a.m. but it's come to rest on top of the bookshelf, so my onions are still hanging in there. The whole balancing act can stay that way until we've eaten enough to lighten the load, then I'll screw it back in the wall.

A lot of the onions have already found their way into some batches of apple chutney. Apples are a big part of the harvest right now. I can't take credit for the bounty, I just try and make good use of it. We go through chutney like drinking water and however much I make it's never enough.

Pickled beans and six jars of chutney

It's the same with jam, although I had some trouble with mould in last year's supply. Instead of re-using jars, as is tradition in England, I ordered some Ball jars with the sealable lids to see if that would solve the problem. I just put up two jars of blackberry-apple-elderberry jelly, and heard the satisfying plink of the vacuum seal. I hope to reap the rewards of good canning practice.

I feel somewhat less rewarded that the sum total of my morning's work picking blackberries resulted in two meagre jars' worth of jelly. Even after I bulked it out with apples. I can't resist the lure of free, ripe, (did I mention free?) berries in the hedgerows - I collected buckets of elderberries, a basket of sloes, Tupperware tubs full of blackberries. My fingers are permanently stained during the month of September. Also a good time not to lend me any books unless you want them returned with purple fingerprints on the pages (My sincere apologies, Colette - only page 210, I promise).

Quincy came with me for her first blackberry picking outing. It's strange to think that she's only been on this earth for ten months. She's learned so much in that short space of time. Having paid the price for training shortcuts with other dogs, I am putting the hours into her. The commands I plant now, I will harvest when Quincy starts her first season in the shooting field.

Quincy doesn't worry about personal space

Oh! I just heard the second jar go plink. If it sets midway between liquid ooze and ballistic gel, it's a winner.

Since my lamentable start to the lambing season, I have been checking the ewes regularly enough to be a nuisance to them. I make up for it by picking a few apples which are out of their reach, and tossing them each a treat.

Sharing the fruits of the harvest

Like they need to be fatter, I know. Looking at their bellies, I have a terrible feeling that there are going to be more singles than twins this year. Had I made sure their nutrition was right before I put them to the ram, I would be cropping twins. I will add that to my ever-growing list of lessons learned. A big single lamb can mean a difficult birth, so now I have to be extra-vigilant.

It's not a huge harvest but I have enough to keep all of us, including our little red hens, fed through the winter.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Poor little lamb

The first lamb of the year came today - a week early and stillborn. A little ewe lamb.

This is not an auspicious start.

Mike has gone to see a neighboring farmer who's lambing out of season, like us, to see if he has any orphans I can foster on the mother. It's a grisly process that involves skinning the dead lamb and wrapping the orphan in the skin. The mother recognises the scent of her own lamb, and adopts the imposter. Like so many things, it sounds simple when you read about it in a book. But when Nature (with a capital 'N') and maternal hormones are involved, it's never so straightforward.

Worse, I'm not sure what's caused it. There are all sorts of bacterias that can cause late-term abortion in sheep. Or it could have just been a weak lamb, one of those things. I hope it's the latter as that's not contagious, and likely to affect an otherwise healthy flock.

I hope I have better news to report in the next post. I'll start my night checks from now on, in case I'm in for more troubled deliveries.


Monday, 5 September 2011

Autumn bounty-ish

The season is changing. BBC news tells me that September 1st is the official start of autumn, but I have more reliable sources. The horses are shedding their summer coats. Plums and apples are ripe; the dessert menu in our house now features crumbles, a stodgy autumn pudding. I’ve harvested sloes, elderberries, and field mushrooms from the hedgerows.

I've dug up my onion crop from the garden and moved the haul to the spare bedroom to dry, a la Tom and Barbara Good. It works great but it's making the house smell like feet for some reason. I’ve dug up the small potato crop to store, but that just goes into a wicker potato hopper in the pantry.

Outside I can hear the clunk-clunk rhythm of a baler, baling up barley straw. I’ve split and stored half of our winter wood. Small talk with neighbors turns to who’s already put their wood stoves or Rayburns on this season.

The washing machine filter logs the changing season too. In summer it catches plastic S-hooks, the kind that are integral to holding nets over the pens that protect young pheasant poults. In autumn, the filter is full of spent .22 and .17 rounds from rifles now protecting more mature pheasant poults from predators.

September 1st is also the start of partridge and duck hunting season. I was invited on opening night to shoot ducks on a flight pond. I missed all five that I fired at, a poor showing even by my low standards. My companions brought down 5 between them.

Pete, Ian, and a selection of happy dogs

One mallard was ringed as part of the British Trust for Ornithology scheme. I reported the number to their website, and I’m looking forward to reading the migration report they promised to send me. When asked, I admitted that the bird was alive and well, until we interfered, and that said subject was going to be eaten. I’m not sure how the BTO will use that bit of data.

Spud the flat-coated retriever opened the season for me as my peg dog on the duck shoot. It was her first time as a peg dog, and retrieving duck. She was patient and interested and, though I gave her nothing to retrieve, she recovered a wounded duck for one of the other guns that we wouldn’t have found without her.

Autumn means a change to working rations for the dogs, which need to start building up reserves for a long season. A once-over from the vets is useful too. Our friend and trusted vet was supposed to stop by on his way to the office to give all of shoot’s dogs their kennel cough treatment (A house call is easier than having 15 rowdy dogs in his waiting room.) It was fortunate that he had to cancel as Brandy - one of underkeeper Pete's spaniels - went off on a personal hunt, and only just returned home for a late lunch. We'll try again tomorrow, and hope all dogs are present and accounted for.

I've moved the sheep to their maternity paddock across the street, where I can see them from my bedroom window. Man alive, are they pregnant. They're huge.

The first one is due as early as the 18th September; Eudora is bagging up already (i.e. her teats are filling with milk). I hope the ewes will all have easy births. If not I'll have to put my hands in the mothers, and move heads and legs around so babies can come out noses and front feet first. The ewes can get on with the business of pushing then.

I had to vaccinate all the sheep again, their annual top-up. And mine as, of course, I jabbed myself by accident. Again. This time I only caught the empty needle before I jabbed a sheep with it, so I'm not counting this one.

As I was cleaning up the spent needles I must have dropped one. Out of the corner of my eye I could see one of the chickens running, with its head poked out in front, the way a chicken does when it's found a worm or mouse and the other chickens are in hot pursuit to rob it. Instead of a worm, it was a needle. The chicken must have seen me drop it and assumed it was more of the delicious stuff I usually drop for them (Sometimes, I throw toast crusts out of my bedroom window and shout 'Manna from Heaven!' at them.) I got it back, but only by exchanging it for the last digestive biscuit in my cookie jar.

I came home from picking blackberries with Mike and found a letter had arrived from the British Wool Marketing Board. They bought my wool and enclosed a cheque for the princely sum of:

63p. And to think, it only cost me £30 to shear them. At this rate I could be bankrupt by next Tuesday. We might be living on what we can hunt and gather. Oh wait, I missed all those ducks. Blackberry jam on toast, anyone?